Tag Archives: Ellis Larkins

THE GOOD NEIGHBOUR POLICY

PETE NEIGHBOUR portrait

Pete Neighbour (hence the title) is a wonderful clarinetist, and his new CD, BACK IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD, is a consistent delight.

Before you think, “If this fellow is so good, why haven’t I heard of him before?” put that thought to rest.  You have.  Here. And you can click here to hear some sound samples from this new CD and to learn more about this session. For those who feel disinclined to click, here are the details of the sixty-four minutes and seven seconds.  The compositions are I WANT TO BE HAPPY / BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS / I MAY BE WRONG / YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG / OPUS ONE / COME SUNDAY / LIZA / WHAT WILL I TELL MY HEART? / TEACH ME TONIGHT / WILLOW WEEP FOR ME / A FOGGY DAY / AFTER YOU’VE GONE.  (I would start my listening session with BOULEVARD, which is a feathery, pensive masterpiece.)

The disc was recorded in London in September 2014; Pete appears with Jim Mullen, guitar; David Newton, piano; Nat Steele, vibraphone; Andrew Cleyndert, bass; Tom Gordon, drums.  Louise Cookman makes a guest vocal appearance on YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG and WHAT WILL I TELL MY HEART?

Aside from a few rousers, the whole CD is carried off as a series of medium / medium-fast rhythm performances, where the band superbly rocks, quietly and persuasively.  Pete himself is a great lyrical player — hear his touching COME SUNDAY, which has a dear pulse but retains its hymnlike aspect.  And he resolutely chooses to sound like himself, although he is clearly inspired by Benny and Buddy — with a sidelong glance at Ken.  His approach, although he has technique to make any clarinetist consider bringing the instrument in for a trade, is not in rapid-fire flurries of notes.  Rather, Pete (in the best heroic way) constructs logical long-limbed phrases and sweet solos out of those phrases, everything fitting together in a way that sounds fully improvised but is also compositionally satisfying.  And the tempos chosen caress the songs rather than attacking the hearer. The rest of the band is quite wonderful, and each number unfolds in its own fashion without ever being predictable.  The session has the gentle exploratory air of a late Ruby Braff recording, as the band continually changes shape into duos and trios — with echoes of Dave McKenna and Ellis Larkins in the duets incorporating Newton’s piano. Louise Cookman, whom I’d not heard before, is a wonder: gently memorable on her two guest appearances.

For more about Pete, here is his Facebook page.

This very well-produced and reassuring CD is available through the usual sources, but here is an easy place to purchase one.  Or several, from the best musical Neighbour.

May your happiness increase!

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THE MIGHTY MEZZ: A NEW NYC JAZZ CLUB OPENS (September 3, 2014)

MEZZROW club

Spike Wilner, pianist, clubowner, and a true Disciple of Swing, has another bold idea: a new New York City jazz club that presents genuine improvised music in kind settings.

Simple facts first: the club opens on September 3, 2014.  It will thrive in the basement of 163 West 1oth Street, steps away from the happily thriving SMALLS, co-piloted by Spike and Mitch Borden.  (For those who worry about such things, both clubs are a few minutes’ walk from the Christopher Street / Sheridan Square station on the Seventh Avenue subway line. And it’s a calm area to be in.)

The club is a “piano room,” which is a term that needs a little explanation.  I don’t mean a “piano bar,” where people accost the pianist at close range and insist (s)he play songs whose title they half know, or where sing-alongs explode like small wildfires — with much the same result.  No.

Once upon a time, New York City had a number of such rooms, usually small, with well-tuned pianos where solos and duos were what you came to hear.  I saw Jimmy Rowles at Bradley’s, Ellis Larkins and Al Hall at Gregory’s.  Although horn players might sit in, these rooms were meant for thoughtful improvisation. In this century, where patrons have a hard time keeping still, paying attention, turning their phones off, Spike’s determination to make such a spot possible is a beautiful and courageous act — in a city that prides itself on having every kind of entertainment and enlightenment in profusion, his new club is a rarity if not a solitary gem.  (Yes, there is the Knickerbocker, and thankfully so, but that large room is a different species entirely.)

MEzz, James P. Johnson, Hughes Panassie, Tommy Ladnier at the Victor studios

MEzz, James P. Johnson, Hughes Panassie, Tommy Ladnier at the Victor studios

Spike has named the club for one of his musical heroes, the clarinetist / saxophonist / organizer / man with plans Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow. Mezzrow was a fascinating figure, someone whose deep-hued nearly-surrealistic autobiography REALLY THE BLUES made a profound impression on me when my sister gave it to me as a birthday gift (I was, I think, 14).  The dream of this century and the preceding one is “You can be anything you want to be if you only want it fiercely enough,” and Mezz — in his own way — exemplified that romantic notion.  Mezz was a White Jewish Chicago kid (those identifiers are important to the story) who was so entranced by the Black music he heard that he knew that was what he wanted to play.  More importantly, he knew that “that” was the person he wanted to be, the life he wanted to lead.

So, although he was never a great musician, he became a friend to Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Tommy Ladnier; he heard and hung around Bix, Joe Oliver, Baby Dodds, Dave Tough, and the rest.  He organized record dates with Teddy Bunn, Bechet, Hot Lips Page, Chick Webb, Frank Newton, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Benny Carter, J.C. Higginbotham, Sidney Catlett, Art Hodes, George Wettling, Zutty Singleton, and more.  He was deeply involved in a near-religious crusade to offer marijuana as a more healthy alternative to whiskey or hard drugs.

And he crossed the color line early and without pretense.  In an era when having mixed-race record sessions was rare, Mezzrow (like Eddie Condon) pushed this idea forward with historic results.  He led a band, the Disciples of Swing, where “white” and “colored” musicians played together.  And more seriously, he identified as Black — marrying a woman of color, and taking his convictions into everyday life.

I think (although I could be presuming here) that this latter figure — the man so deeply committed to a music and the ideas behind it: community, equality, creativity — is the man Spike honors by naming this new club MEZZROW.

Here is the club’s website, where you can learn more about it — the schedule, ticketing, about Mezz himself, and more. I don’t know when I’ll make my first visit, but since I see my friends Rebecca Kilgore, Ehud Asherie, Rossano Sportiello, Michael Kanan, Scott Robinson, Neal Miner . . . I expect to be there often, and it may well be a deeply needed oasis of quiet creativity in New York. And https://www.facebook.com/mezzrowclub is the club’s Facebook page.

Blessings on you, Spike.

May your happiness increase!

NO COMEDY, JUST MUSIC: “THE BOB AND RAY SHOW” (BOB SCHULZ / RAY SKJELBRED)

The CD I present to you is a good idea whose time has come — growing out of the inevitable amusement one would have at a jazz duo CD titled THE BOB AND RAY SHOW.  No Elliott or Goulding, just Schulz (cornet, vocals), and Skjelbred (piano) in duets recorded in 2009 and 2013.

Here’s how the duo sounded — on a slightly crowded bandstand — on May 26, 2014, at the Sacramento Music Festival:

The songs on this wonderful CD, each one with singular associations, are ‘T’AIN’T SO, HONEY, ‘T’AIN’T SO (Robison, Bix, Whiteman, Crosby); WININ’ BOY BLUES (Mr. Morton); I AIN’T GOT NOBODY (everyone from Bessie Smith onwards); SHOE SHINE BOY (Louis, Basie, and Bing); SAVE IT, PRETTY MAMA (again Louis, Earl Hines, Don Redman); BECAUSE MY BABY DON’T MEAN ‘MAYBE” NOW (Bix, Whiteman, Bing); PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (Bing, Louis, and almost everyone else from Billie to Dick Wellstood); MANDY, MAKE UP YOUR MIND ( Clarence Williams into the twenty-first century); ‘TIL TIMES GET BETTER (Jabbo Smith); REACHING FOR SOMEONE (Bix and Tram, also Dick Sudhalter); I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA (Bix and Jimmy Rushing); MONDAY DATE (Earl, Louis, and more); KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW (Fats, Ruby Braff, and more); OH, BABY! (Tesch, Sullivan, Condon, Krupa, and more); WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS (Bing, Louis, and many others); WEATHER BIRD RAG (King Oliver; Louis and Earl; Braff and Hyman, and more).

The tempos chosen for this disc are primarily pretty Medium Tempos, reminding us of the infinite variations possible in that sonic meadow, the results neither soporific nor hasty.

I imagine that the improvising duet of cornet and piano goes back to the late eighteen-hundreds, when that brass instrument was a feature of homegrown ensembles and pianos were in many parlors. On record, I think of Oliver and Morton, first in a long line including Louis and Earl, Ruby and Ellis, Ruby and Dick, Sweets and Earl, a long series of trumpet duets with Oscar Peterson . . . a lineage continuing as I write this.

The duo of Schulz and Skjelbred is special — for its consistent pervasive lyricism. Many of these pairings have a playful acrobatic quality, with one of the musicians saying to the other, “Oh, yeah?  Top this!”  Some of the playfulness becomes cheerfully competitive, assertive or even aggressive. The two players trot along through each song as friendly equals, neither trying to overpower the other. Bob and Ray aren’t out to show off; they like beautiful melodies and the little surprises that can be found within even the most familiar song.  Hear, for instance, Skjelbred’s harmonic surprises and suspensions that he offers early in the video of SHOE SHINE BOY.

One of the pleasures of the disc is the easy, ardent yet understated singing of Bob — he is known to burst into song when the mood and the material are appropriate during a session of his Frisco Jazz Band, but I find his vocals particularly charming: a Crosby mordent here or there. His singing — clear, unaffected, gentle — is the expression of his cornet playing, which is a model of middle-range melodic improvisation. (In it, one hears a spring-water clarity out of Bix and Hackett, then a Spanier-intensity when Bob takes up the plunger mute.)

Bob’s partner in these explorations, Ray Skjelbred, continues to amaze and delight: his off-center approach, original yet always elating, his rollicking rhythms, his bluesy depths. Ray takes risks, and his playing is deliciously unpredictable, but it is always in the  groove. (With headphones, I could hear Bob say, softly, “Yeah!” at a felicitous Skjelbred pathway — over the rough road to the stars.) Yes, that’s a Sullivan rattle, a Stacy octave, or a Hines daredevil-leap you are hearing, but it’s all transformed in the hands of Mr. Skjelbred, who is one of the finest orchestral pianists I will ever hear — but whose orchestra is shot through with light and shade, never ponderous.

And this is not a disc of two great soloists who happen, perhaps against their will, to find themselves asked to become members of a team and do it with some reluctance. It’s clear that Bob and Ray are musical comrades who look forward to exchanging ideas, celebrating the dear old tunes while making them feel just like new.  Incidentally, the disc offers — in the best homage to George Avakian — an example or two of judicious overdubbing, with Bob both singing and playing at once. . . . something we would like to hear and see in real life, but he hasn’t managed such magic on the stand. Yet.

The thoughtful musical conversations Bob and Ray have on this disc are emotionally sustaining. Each performance has its own dramatic shape, its own structure — more than a series of ensemble / solo choruses — and I would send copies of this disc to all the young musicians in and out of this idiom.  And a test: I would ask purchasers to pick out what they think is the most “overplayed” song on the disc and listen seriously to the Bob-and-Ray version, to see what magic can be made when two earnestly playful masters go to work on rich materials. Not incidentally, the sound on this disc captures all the nuances without any engineering-strangeness, and the neatly comprehensive liner notes by drummer / historian / writer Hal Smith are a pleasure.

You can hear musical samples here (go to the “CD” section — this disc is at the top of the page). Even better, you can search out Bob or Ray at an upcoming gig and press some accepted local currency into one or the other master’s hand. As I’ve noted, Ray is touring California (that’s San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Menlo Park, Sonoma, and back to San Francisco) between July 8 and the 14th, so you can have the double pleasure of hearing him live and purchasing a CD.

Unlike the shows put on by Elliott and Goulding, I didn’t find myself laughing while I was listening, although I was smiling all the time, at the beautiful, wise, mellow music.  Get yourself some.

May your happiness increase!

 

OSCAR PETTIFORD, FOUND

OP front

Bassist, cellist, and composer Oscar Pettiford is in the odd position of being both legendary and forgotten (as Whitney Balliett wrote of Pee Wee Russell). If you ask any aficionado of jazz string bass playing to name a dozen favorites — living and dead — it’s likely that the names will come easily.  But Pettiford’s is often not among them.

Yes, he died young, but not before performing and recording every famous musician (with some notable exceptions) in a short career.  An incomplete list would include Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Charlie Christian, Gil Evans, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Woody Herman, Coleman Hawkins, Ray Charles, Stan Getz, Lucky Thompson, Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Julius Watkins, Ben Webster, Sammy Price, Ruby Braff, Mel Powell, Ellis Larkins, Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Billie Holiday, Red Norvo, Clifford Brown, Buddy De Franco, Phineas Newborn, Kai Winding, Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown, Lionel Hampton, Don  Byas, Clyde Hart, Earl Hines, Budd Johnson, Joe Thomas, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Martial Solal, Attlia Zoller, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Billy Eckstine, Cozy Cole, Shadow Wilson, Charlie Shavers, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Ed Hall, Lawrence Brown, Sonny Greer, Maxine Sullivan, Dick Hyman, Eddie Bert, Joe Derise, Ike Quebec, Jonah Jones, Buck Clayton, Helen Humes, Benny Harris, Boyd Raeburn, Serge Chaloff, Howard McGhee, Sir Charles Thompson, Wynonie Harris, Vic Dickenson, Red Rodney, Tal Farlow, Denzil Best, Jo Jones, Leo Parker, Al Haig, Al Hibbler, Nat Pierce, Bill Harris, Howard McGhee, J.J. Johnson, Art Taylor, Wynton Kelly, Lockjaw Davis, Jackie McLean, Kenny Clarke, Dave McKenna, Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Chris Connor, Hank Jones, Earl Coleman, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Billy Taylor, Chuck Wayne, Roy Haynes, Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce, Al Cohn, Frank Wess, Jimmy Cleveland, Barry Galbraith, Joe Morello, Joe Wilder, Harry Lookofsky, Jimmy Jones, Urbie Green, Ernie Royal, Herbie Mann, George Barnes, Clark Terry, Dave Schildkraut, Helen Merrill, Jimmy Raney, Horace Silver, Doug Mettome, Quincy Jones, Duke Jordan, Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Cecil Payne, Toots Thielmans, Red Garland.

This suggests that Oscar’s peers respected him and called him for gigs and recordings.  It’s not as if he was obscure: his career was longer than, say, Blanton’s or Steve Brown’s.  But, oddly for jazz, which loves to mythologize the musicians who die young and abruptly (and Pettiford died as the result of a 1960 automobile accident) he hasn’t received the benefit of the weird reverence fans and writers have for the young dead.

Of course, it could be that bass players don’t get the respect they and their instruments deserve, but it is and was hard to ignore Pettiford on a session. He offered a rhythmic foundation that was powerful rather than obtrusive, but when he soloed, his lines have the solid eloquence that any horn player would aspire to — while seeming light rather than ponderous.  And as the list of players above suggests, his musical range was exceedingly broad: he wasn’t captured on record in free jazz or ragtime, but he elevated every other variety of jazz and jazz vocal performance he was part of.  Had he lived longer, he might have enjoyed the visibility of a Milt Hinton or a Ray Brown, but we have only brief moments of him on film (the 1945 THE CRIMSON CANARY) and a few seconds of his speaking voice.

Surely he should be better known.

Enough words and keystrokes for the moment: listen to his 1960 feature on WILLOW WEEP FOR ME:

and here he is, playing his own BLUES IN THE CLOSET — from a little-known 1953 television broadcast — on cello (which he took to for a time after breaking an arm in a baseball game):

And his stirring solo on STARDUST:

Now, two pieces of good news that might go some distance in making Oscar’s name and music known to a larger audience.  One is that there is a YouTube channel, PettifordJazz, with sixty videos of Pettiford solos, ensembles, and compositions.  That means that no one has to start collecting Oscar’s music — it is being made available to all for free.

Oscar (or “O.P.”, as his colleagues called him) also spent the last two years of his life in Europe (mostly in Scandinavia and Germany), and recorded often there.  Sessions with guitarist Attila Zoller have been issued and reissued on a variety of labels (in the vinyl era, they appeared on Black Lion) and a famous 1960 concert in Essen with Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and Coleman Hawkins was available forty years ago.  Recordings made in 1958-59 for the German radio network have now been issued for the first time on compact disc, in beautiful sound, as OSCAR PETTIFORD: LOST TAPES — GERMANY 1958 / 1959, on SWR Music.

American expatriates Lucky Thompson (on soprano sax for a gorgeous, melancholy SOPHISTICATED LADY) and Kenny Clarke (drums on the final five performances of the disc) are the “stars,” but Zoller stands out as a beautifully measured guitarist.

OP cover rear

And although some US critics of the time might have been condescending to European players, this disc shows their equal mastery. Trumpeter Dusko Goykovich duets with Oscar on the opening BUT NOT FOR ME.  Other notable players here are clarinetist Rolf Kuhn; light-toned tenorist Hans Koller; baritone saxophonists Helmut Brandt, Helmut Reinhardt, Johnny Feigl; altoist Rudi Feigl; guitarist Hans Hammerschmid; drummers Jimmy Pratt and Hartwig Bartz.  The songs are a mix of standards and originals: BUT NOT FOR ME / SOPHISTICATED LADY / A SMOOTH ONE / O.P. (Hans Koller) / MINOR PLUS A MAJOR (Kuhn) / POOR BUTTERFLY / ANUSIA (Hans Koller) / MY LITTLE CELLO (Pettiford) / THE NEARNESS OF YOU / YESTERDAYS / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET (Pettiford) / BIG HASSLE (Hammerschmidt) / ATLANTIC (Helmut Brandt) / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET — the last two are live performances.

And just because it’s accessible and stirring, here is that film clip — from an otherwise undistinguished 1945 murder mystery, THE CRIMSON CANARY, which features Hawk, Pettiford, Howard McGhee, trumpet; Sir Charles Thompson, piano; Denzil Best, on a fast SWEET GEORGIA BROWN line by Hawkins called HOLLYWOOD STAMPEDE:

Ultimately, I think if you’d asked Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, or any number of jazz luminaries, “What about this O.P. fellow?  Should I listen to him?” the answer would have been a very strong affirmative.  So let us do just that. These tapes were lost, but have been found: spread the word about Oscar.  Remind those who have forgotten; introduce those who never knew.  “Learn it to the younguns!” as the youthful protagonist of Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN hears at the start of that novel.

May your happiness increase!

ABIGAIL RICCARDS: HER HEART IS IN HER SONG

Two years ago, the pianist Michael Kanan invited me to hear and video his duo-recital with the singer Abigail Riccards, who was moving from New York to Chicago.  I had not heard of Abigail, but Michael’s endorsement of any artist is an unshakable statement of the artist’s deep value.  I was immediately impressed with Abby’s steady pace, her wise understanding of lyrics, her ability to evoke feelings in us with even the most familiar song, and her light-hearted swing.

Here they are with a prayerful ALL THE WAY: you’ll get the idea of what so struck me, and everyone else listening — the warmth, openness, intelligence, and empathy of Abigail’s singing.

I’ve been waiting for a CD that would show Abigail at her best, and EVERY LITTLE STAR is it.

abigailriccard_everylittlestar_cmb

Co-produced by Jane Monheit and Abigail herself, it is a consistent delight.  Some of that is due to the musicians she asked to join her: Michael on piano, Peter Bernstein, guitar; Neal Miner, string bass; Eliot Zigmund, drums.  Some of it is due to the sprightly mix of songs Abigail has chosen: old favorites made new — I’VE TOLD EV’RY LITTLE STAR / SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN / IF I HAD YOU / HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN / A SLEEPIN’ BEE / I DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT YOU / I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE / SMILE / BYE BYE BLACKBIRD / WALTZ FOR DEBBY — and an original by Jeannie Tanner, ENDLESS JOY, and Joni Mitchell’s CIRCLE GAME (a duet for Abigail and Jane).

But this isn’t another program of a youthful singer offering up songs everyone knows in predictable ways.  You will quickly admire the easy, conversational way Abigail delivers the lyrics — words uttered as if the thoughts were hers — and her sweet improvisations, which shed light on the song rather than superimposing her ego on the composer’s.  Her generous spirit comes through in the substantial space she gives to Michael, Neal, Peter, and Eliot — so that when she returns after their instrumental interludes, it is as if she is now being carried triumphantly on their shoulders.

The tempos chosen are also deliciously insightful: ballads never drag and the quicker songs don’t rush.  Little arranging touches raise each performance well above the familiar: a wordless prelude to IF I HAD YOU; a nifty beginning to HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN?; the way Abigail and Jane intertwine on CIRCLE GAME; the tender way she and the band approach I DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT YOU; the bouncing scat chorus with which she begins I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE before shifting to another key. . .

My current favorites — instant classics! — are a Riccards / Kanan duet of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN that begins with an slow rubato reading of the verse, then slowly tumbles into the chorus . . . where we hear singer and pianist discovering this 1929 classic as if for the first time.  I couldn’t immediately place where I had heard such intimacy before, then it hit me — the Fifties duets of Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins.  The same qualities are evident throughout A SLEEPIN’ BEE, a Riccards / Kanan duet.  And in the Riccards / Bernstein SMILE, tender and rueful without being melancholic.

On the dozen songs that make up this varied program, Abigail Riccards proves herself not only a splendidly intuitive singer, but an artist who is the equal of the fine improvising instrumentalists around her.

Now, hearing this, you could choose to explore the banquet of live performances Abigail Riccards has on YouTube, and I wouldn’t blame you a bit.  But I would urge you to take the leap forward into purchasing this CD here.  All CD sales go to ArtStrides (a nonprofit program for special needs and financially disadvantaged children) so you benefit them by your generosity and you benefit yourself by having this music to listen to often.  

May your happiness increase!

EVERY DREAM GONE: WILLARD ROBISON AND JACK TEAGARDEN

DON'T SMOKE IN BED

I have been thinking about Willard Robison a good deal the past few days.  For good reason, mind you: I was asked to write some notes for a forthcoming release on the Nif Nuf label of trumpeter Bob Barnard and friends playing Robison.  Vocals of a most beautiful kind by Bob’s niece Rebecca; other musicians including Jo Stevenson and Andrew Swann.

I don’t know enough about Robison’s life to say much about it, but his beautiful intriguing music seems to divide into the Inspirational — WAKE UP CHILLUN, WAKE UP; ‘T’AIN’T SO, HONEY, ‘T’AIN’T SO; TRUTHFUL PARSON BROWN, the Affectionate — LITTLE HIGH CHAIRMAN, OLD FOLKS, and the Desolate / Lonely — ‘ROUND MY OLD DESERTED FARM, LONELY ACRES IN THE WEST, A COTTAGE FOR SALE, and his last great hit, DON’T SMOKE IN BED — circa 1948, and a success for Peggy Lee (whose version strikes me as too light-hearted for the song’s depths).

Matt Munisteri, who has made a deep study of Robison’s music as well as a beautiful CD of it, could add more titles to my list, but I am not intending to be comprehensive at the moment.  Details of his strikingly fine CD here.

I know nothing of Robison’s emotional or marital life.  I know he had great success in the Twenties and early Thirties, and he lived into his early seventies, but there is a deep strain of nearly hopeless melancholy in his work.

Where other writers were incessantly writing about the possibilities of Romance (think, for instance, of PENTHOUSE SERENADE), Robison is drawn to the emptied, the vacant, the mournfulness of a house when one’s partner has left.  (Yes, there was the non-Robison 1931 song IN A LITTLE SECOND-HAND STORE, where the singer sees the belongings (s)he and spouse have so cherished up for sale in a window — but that singer is able to say, “Let’s get back together again and we’ll reconstruct that dream.”)

Robison’s songs — at least these two — sound as if the shared hopes have been shattered.  I know that Larry Conley wrote the lyrics for COTTAGE, but I think the despair is not only Conley’s.

Here, although at a jaunty tempo, is Robison himself singing COTTAGE, with verse, in 1930.  Be it ever so humble, there’s no home any more:

“Our little dream castle / With everything gone” is a definite way to begin a song — no optimistic extenuation possible.  The tempo is far from dirgelike, and in 2013 we are long familiar with the beautiful ballad medley, but the lyrics remind us that what we are witnessing in the empty cottage is a death — not the death of a person, but the death of hope and love as embodied in a marriage.

Conley knew something either about domestic agriculture or had read a good deal of English poetry to draw on the images of lawns turned to hay, roses overrun by weeds — the untended garden as sign of a broken compact, an irreparable rip in the fabric of loving order. And the brief bridge presents a terrifying reality, where the singer can see the face of the absent spouse in every window but no such welcome is possible as the singer approaches the actual, desolate dwelling.

Robison was a light-voiced, gentle singer.  I leave it to his friend Jack Teagarden to record the absolutely definitive version of this song in 1962.  (I find the beautiful arrangements by Russ Case and Bob Brookmeyer slightly busy but so intuitively perceptive — although I would have liked to hear Jack backed only by Ellis Larkins or Jimmy Rowles):

And COTTAGE is emotionally less powerful than the song that has struck me at the center of my being ever since I heard Jack’s recording of it, DON’T SMOKE IN BED:

I do not know the circumstances that led up to the writing of that song.  With thoughts of a recent posting connected to Marion Harris on my mind, whose death echoed the song’s title — I am sure that more than one spouse / partner told the other, “For God’s sake, don’t do that!  You’ll kill yourself if you do that!”  But DON’T SMOKE IN BED is about so much more than fire safety.

Whether you hear the song as the expression of the woman who leaves the note or the man who tells us of the event, it is absolutely heart-stopping as a record of a long-time marriage that has failed so irrevocably that no recourse is possible except for one partner leaving while the other is asleep.

And what hits so hard is that the woman (let us say) who is telling her husband, “I am gone.  Do not try to follow me, look for me, find me.  I am leaving behind ‘my old wedding ring,’ a severing more decisive than any divorce proceeding — can speak to her obliviously sleeping spouse with colloquial rueful tenderness: “Remember, darling, don’t smoke in bed,” as if she were simultaneously concerned about his welfare while finding it impossible to live with him, look out for him, take care of him one day more.

The singer calls the sleeper, “old sleepy head,” which could be read as deeply affectionate at best, slightly mocking at worst — but it is a sobriquet more tender than many of us have heard in arguments. But what follows is — although casually stated — final: “I’m packing you in / Like I said,” which says that this is not a single marital argument that has escalated but the end of a long series of them, where the possibility of one partner leaving has often been discussed.

Did Robison know such an incident?  Did one of his friends, male or female, walk away from a relationship with such power and such regret, perhaps leaving a note and a ring?  Did some spouse — playfully or with great seriousness — say, “One day you’re going to wake up and I’ll be gone.  And when that happens, I hope you’ll stop smoking in bed.  I can’t stand you, but I don’t want you burned to death.”  Did someone wake up to find his / her partner gone?  Was it Robison himself?

I don’t know.

But I do not think anyone writes such a song without having personal experience — heard or lived-through — to base it on.

And I know that it is bad scholarship (even though I am thirty years’ out of graduate school) to ascribe biographical details to art.  But.  By 1962 Jack Teagarden was happily married — but with the wreckage of several marriages behind him.  Is it too much to hear world-weariness, despair, and knowledge in his voice?  I think not.

The way Teagarden arches his voice to deliver “Don’t look for me,” part cry, part croon, suggests a sorrowing song underneath this performance that the notes themselves cannot notate or contain — echoed by the way, glorious and anguished, that Don Goldie’s trumpet rises at the end of his solo.

Bless Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Don Goldie, Willard Robison, and Larry Conley for giving us such dramatic experiences — passages through sorrow and loss in the form of music that make us shiver with sadness and recognition.

“With these few goodbye-words . . . . the end of our story is told on the door.”

May your happiness increase. 

“DO SOMETHING, PLEASE!”: ANDY SCHUMM, MARTY GROSZ, JOHN SHERIDAN, FRANK TATE, RICKY MALICHI at JAZZ at CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 21, 2012)

As good a group as you’ll hear . . .  everyone pointed in the same direction, playing solid songs that have a great deal of life in them, with lilt, wit, and swing.  That’s Andy Schumm, cornet; Marty Grosz, guitar and vocal; John Sheridan, piano; Frank Tate, string bass; Ricky Malichi.  Recorded on September 21, 2012, at Jazz at Chautauqua.

Taken at a stomping tempo, DO SOMETHING (without its wooing lyrics) is more of a swinging command to the shy lover:

I have a deep fondness for PLEASE — having heard Bing’s versions, early and late, and the passionate Ruby Braff-Ellis Larkins exploration.  We are welcome to silently analyze Andy’s calling these two songs in this order — but I’d rather savor the melodic beauty here:

One of the delights of Jazz at Chautauqua is a splendid array of sheet music — and there were many copies of WEARY RIVER.  Andy knew the song but copied out the verse for John Sheridan — their rubato episode is beautiful indeed.  (If I recall correctly, the song comes from a First National film, circa 1929, starring Richard Barthelmess — one of the delights of sheet music as opposed to simply hearing the song on a recording):

INDIANA might seem a very tired choice, but not when you have scholars like Schumm and Grosz on the case, sniffing out the chord changes from the late Twenties recording by Red Nichols — a series of small pleasurable shocks, even before Marty (paying tribute to vocalizing Eddie Condon) sings for us about Middle Western nostalgias:

May your happiness increase.